CMO Insights: Marketing the Lifestyle

Every once in a while I meet someone whose job sounds like a lot more fun than mine.  After interviewing Chris Brull, Head of Marketing at Kawasaki Motors, I definitely had pangs of jealously.  I mean who wouldn’t want to ride bikes, ATVs and Jet Skis all in the name of customer and product research?  And then there’s the fact that his marketing mission is to reinforce the “wild, unrestrained, amazing fun” that his customers have using Kawasaki products.  Sounds like a winning formula to me and as it turns out, it also resonated with the folks at The CMO Club, who recognized Chris with their Rising Star Award late last year.

As you will see, Brull brings tremendous passion to his job at Kawasaki and is not afraid to take risks.  This sense of adventure made Brull an early proponent of digital, social and mobile, all of which helped build enduring connections with its fan base and drive new fans to Kawasaki dealers.  Read on to learn what Brull means when he refers to marketing Kawasaki not as a brand, but as a “lifestyle.”

Drew: Kawasaki Motors has a famously fanatical customer following. What are the things you are doing to maintain and improve loyalty among your customers?
I think you hit it straight on in terms of the fanatical following. We’re one brand (Kawasaki) and we have 14 different sub-brands, and 84 different models. You have to speak to these targets extremely authentically because these enthusiasts can spot a fake. To connect with them, we really have to know what we’re talking about. There can be no one-size fits all campaigns. You have to be very, very targeted and direct. Not every industry is as hyper connected with their customers as you have to be in power sports. You have to understand how people act, react, and think. We’re becoming real and authentic to the point where we’re almost a family member.

Drew: You said yourself that you have 14 different sub-brands and 84 different models. How do you stay close to your customers when you have so many different segments and so many hyper-focused initiatives?
Our company name is Kawasaki Heavy Industries. We’ve been around since 1870. We build products that are all about bettering people’s lives. Our company actually builds the Shinkansen bullet train. We build the fuselage of the Dreamliner. We build the factories where our products are made. It’s a crazy experience.

This is idea of Kawasaki Strong – the company that builds all of these things is actually the same company that builds these power sport products. If you look at Harley, they just build cruisers. Our engineering comes from something bigger and it’s very compelling for the customer. There’s a new campaign kicking off that will celebrate this engineering prowess.

Drew: Would you call this new campaign a re-launch?
It’s not a re-launch, it’s just re-telling the corporate story. We’re formalizing what the dealers have been doing for the past 15-20 years. There is a lot of story to tell, a lot of sex appeal that separates us from the competition. We call our appeal “intelligent rebel”. We’re not for everyone nor do we want to be. We’re about going further, faster. We’ve always been known for wild high-end performance. No one builds engines like Kawasaki. It’s just this rider feeling that we have created. Almost like you’re one with the product.  This is wild, unrestrained, amazing fun.

Drew: In terms of marketing, have there been any big surprises in terms of what’s really worked well?
We started testing our tools on customers via trial and error. Much of this stuff started to work. We were hooking these guys online long before the online bandwith was widely available. But it worked! We were giving fanatic customers their Kawasaki fix. They wanted to see the next big thing in Kawasaki and we were giving it to them. Our idea was to just give them a little bit. We were taking our content down to bite-sized pieces and giving our customers reasons to buy Kawasaki. The videos were shot in an elegant way that engaged, educated, and excited our customers. Our content strategy was ahead of the curve at that time. And there were skeptics within the company at the time but we were ultimately prophets and the strategy proved itself to be wildly successful.

Drew: As everyone moved online, experiential marketing was somewhat lost. Would you consider going back to experiential to be an innovation?
Personal interaction (especially in our industry) is still so critical. We might have a customer sitting on the website at 2am getting hooked. But at the end of the day, you can’t buy our product online. You still need to get the person to the dealership.

Demo rides are not often offered at dealerships because the dealerships have liability. That’s a strike against us. So, we create opportunities where we can show people the inside of our bikes and compare it to our competitor’s bikes. Tell the customer the Kawasaki story. People are hungry for knowledge. We get them fired up to ride. Now that I’ve told you what features we have inside of the bike, once I’ve showed them to you, then we go ride. I talk through what you’re feeling once we’re riding. It’s very experiential. Then you’re hooked. That’s the Kawasaki experience. We go to where our customers live and create our own experiential events.

Drew: How do you evaluate the effectiveness of your marketing?   
The sale of units is our top goal. But we’re not necessarily holding marketing solely accountable to the sale of the unit. Local sales guys are tasked with the selling. Flat out awareness of the brand is one goal for my team. We are also looking at engagement levels in the digital space and floor traffic into the local dealerships. We also evaluate marks such as the strength of the brand, likelihood to recommend, and likelihood of missing the brand if it were gone. This is all very top line.

Drew: What are a couple things that you’re most proud of as the head of marketing at Kawasaki?
The first thing that comes to mind is our online integration into social and mobile because we were the first to do it in the industry. Another thing that I’m very proud of is the global launch of our products. One of the sexier ones we did was a Times Square launch for Ninja. We had a live broadcast globally and had 1.5 million people show up to the event. No one else in our space had done something on that scale. It was a big risk with a big reward.

One of my biggest accomplishments was actually internal at the company. When I started, trust needed to be built between the factory team and the U.S.-based marketing team. I was able to build an internal coalition within Kawasaki that proved that the U.S. marketing team was able to work with and add value to the home office in Japan. The Times Square experiential launch was the turning point for us. It was the first time that the Kawasaki message was the same globally and the content was the same globally for a product launch. To be able to pull that off and get people to work together and trust each other as part of a global coalition – that was an accomplishment. Now I get to be a team leader of that global coalition.

Drew: Have you been able to use the voice of the customer to affect not just marketing but product development?  
When I started at Kawasaki, marketing didn’t find out about a product until 6 months before launch. There was an inherent distrust. Now through the trust that we’ve built, our company has realized that it’s critical to listen to the voice of our customers. We also realized that product marketing was critical to separate ourselves in the market. We needed to understand the real reasons why certain products weren’t selling. One of the things we realized was that certain products sell better in certain places. For instance, 4 wheel products sell great in the US and not in Japan. How could a customer tell you about advancement? They can’t. But they’re giving clues all the time as long as you’re listening.

Drew: It would be remiss of me not to ask about social media. You have 800,000 fans on Facebook, a fair amount of activity on Twitter. Let’s talk about it from a customer service standpoint. Are you set up to deal with customer issues on social?
We were the first in our industry to have a social presence. So that’s something to be proud of. For me, it wasn’t enough to post a bunch of cool shots of cool bikes. It was really about the voice of our customers. We have our social team set up to respond almost 24/7. It’s critically important that we are sensitive to what’s going on with our customers. These hyper enthusiasts are our “friends”. They expect that Kawasaki the brand respond in real time. Our communities will often police itself and many times they take care of their own before we have to. We’re looking at it as social business more than social media. It’s almost a lead tool. The conversations actually go pretty deep. We’re sharing riding tips, riding locations, history of the brand, dealership locations. Another nice thing is that we’ve never bought a single fan on social. Our 800,000 fans are hard earned.

Drew: You talked about the interest in all of this related content. How far have you gone with product related content to keep customers interested and engaged?
We think that content related to “how the product works” is critical to our audience. Then there’s the “what it is” content. This is the physical product, how it’s supposed to performs, etc. Then you get to the most important piece: why. Why do you ride? Is it the wind in the face? Is it the escape? Leaving friends and family behind? Or is it riding with a big pack? It’s the inspirational part of riding. It’s a very mature market and being able to tap into that with our 26 different targets. When you get into our content, we’re hitting the why, the how, and the what, when we’re trying to excite these people. We tap into the lifestyle. We show people what goes on at Daytona Bike Week. Let me show you what’s going on with our Ninja ZX14 when they’re actually drag racing it. Let me show you what happens in Europe at the Isle of Mann TT. People are hanging on every morsel that comes out of the Kawasaki Corporation. They want to connect. They want to belong. So the product itself is almost a ticket to the Kawasaki party. The all-access content is a hook. This type of marketing is hard to pull off. The deeper we go, the more rewarded we are. After all, I’m selling a lifestyle.

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